Satir, Virginia M.

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Virginia M. Satir

American family therapist who championed the worth of the individual person.

Although Virginia Satir devoted her career to family therapy , she believed strongly in focusing on the self-worth of individuals. The family unit might be critically important, she felt, but the self-esteem of each member of the family had to come from within each person. Because of her studies, her experience based on working with thousands of families, and her instinctive understanding of family issues, she earned a reputation as a pioneer and leader in the field of family therapy.

The oldest of five children, Satir was born on a farm in Nellsville, Wisconsin, on June 26, 1916, to Oscar and Minnie Happe Pagenkopf. She displayed what would be a lifelong desire for knowledge at an early age; she was reading by the age of three, and through her childhood she read voraciously, often saying that she would like to be a detective and unravel mysteries when she grew up. As one of five children whose parents had large families (her parents came from families of 13 and seven children), she was able to observe the family dynamic long before she had thought of becoming a therapist.

Satir received her early education in a one-room school, but by the time she was of high school age the family had moved to Milwaukee. She excelled in high school and upon graduation enrolled in Milwaukee State Teachers College (now part of the University of Wisconsin). She worked her way through school and graduated in 1936 with a bachelor of arts degree in education.

Embarks on social work career

For the first few years after she graduated, Satir was a schoolteacher. Because she felt she would learn more about people by being exposed to a variety of individuals and communities, she traveled to different cities to teach, including Ann Arbor, Michigan; Shreveport, Louisiana; St. Louis, Missouri; and Miami, Florida. She then decided to pursue a career in social work; in 1937 she enrolled at Northwestern University in Chicago, taking classes in the summer and teaching school the rest of the year. After three summers, she enrolled full time at the University of Chicago, completing her coursework by 1943 and her thesis in 1948.

Being a graduate student was a difficult but ultimately rewarding experience for Satir. During the 1940s, there was still a stigma against women in graduate programs, even in an ostensibly more liberal discipline such as social work. Satire later said that these experiences made her stronger and more determined to keep going.

Begins family therapy training programs

After receiving her master's degree, Satir went into private practice. She met with an entire family instead of an individual for the first time in 1951, and it convinced her that therapy that included the family was more effective than working with the individual alone. She lived out her lifelong dream of unraveling the mysteries of family dynamics. Through the 1950s, she continued to focus on working with families. After her second marriage (she had previously married Gordon Rodgers) to Norman Satir ended in 1957, she moved to California, and with two other therapists founded the Mental Health Research Institute (MHRI). In 1962, MHRI obtained a grant from the National Institute of Mental Health to begin what would be the first formal family therapy training program. Satir published her first book, Conjoint Family Therapy, in 1964. She traveled extensively throughout the 1960s and 1970s, conducting workshops and seminars.

Recognizing the importance of networking for therapists, Satir founded the International Human Resources Learning Network (IHRLN) in 1970 and the Avanta Network (now known as Avanta, the Virginia Satir Network) in 1977. During these years, she received recognition for her important work. She received a Distinguished Service Award from the American Association for Marriage and Family Therapy, and the University of Wisconsin awarded her an honorary doctorate in 1973.

Satir continued her work into the 1980s. She established the Satir Family Camps program through Avanta, which allows families and their therapists to spend one or two weeks in selected wilderness settings. She continued to travel and conduct training programs and seminars. In the summer of 1988, she was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. She stayed active through the summer but the cancer spread, and she died at her home in Menlo Park, California, on September 10, 1988.

George A. Milite

Further Reading

Satir, Virginia. Conjoint Family Therapy: A Guide to Theory and Techniques. Palo Alto, CA: Science and Behavior Books, 1964.

Satir, Virginia. Peoplemaking. Palo Alto, CA: Science and Behavior Books, 1972.